Butler was strong defensively against Valparaiso early this month, and has only gotten better. Unfortunately for the Horizon League, Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens thinks his team has even more room for improvement.
The 13th-ranked Bulldogs look to continue their dominant play on defense and tie a Horizon League record for consecutive wins when they host the struggling Crusaders on Friday night.
Butler (18-1, 9-0) is ranked third in the nation in scoring defense at 55.6 points per game. The Bulldogs shut down Valparaiso (6-15, 3-7) on Jan. 3, limiting it to 39.2 percent shooting in a 75-62 win for their sixth straight victory in the series.
In six games since, Butler has continued to progress on the defensive end, allowing 52.0 points per game and holding opponents to 34.7 percent from the field. The Bulldogs had one of their most dominating efforts of the season Saturday, holding Wisconsin-Milwaukee to 24.1 percent shooting in a 78-48 victory.
“I always say I hope we play our best defense tomorrow,” Stevens said.
If Stevens is correct and Butler can keep improving, the Horizon League race could become even more lopsided. The Bulldogs have a two-game lead over Wisconsin-Green Bay, and have won 20 straight in conference play since a 56-52 loss to Cleveland State on Jan. 17, 2008.
Butler can tie the league record for consecutive wins with a victory over Valparaiso, loser of four of five. Wisconsin-Green Bay won 21 straight between 1994-97.
The Bulldogs have won 10 in a row overall, 14 straight at home and have gone through the first half of their conference schedule undefeated for the first time in their history.
Valparaiso is coming off its highest-scoring effort against a Division I opponent this season, beating Wisconsin-Green Bay 83-76 on Saturday night, but that may not be cause for optimism for the Crusaders. Wisconsin-Milwaukee is second in the Horizon League with 68.6 points per game in conference play, but the Bulldogs held it to 13 field goals.
“Defense is always a focus for us,” Bulldogs swingman Gordon Hayward said.
Hayward is one of three freshman starters for Butler, making the team’s discipline on defense all the more impressive.
The Bulldogs’ top three scorers are underclassmen. Sophomore Matt Howard tops Butler with 13.5 points per game, freshman Shelvin Mack is averaging 13.1 and Hayward 12.7.
That trio scored 45 points in this season’s first matchup with the Crusaders. Butler leads the series 63-32.
Urele Igbavboa led Valparaiso’s starters in the January meeting with 17 points and seven rebounds. He’s averaging a team-high 11.2 points and 5.2 boards.
Howard Little was held to six points on 2-of-8 shooting against Butler but had a career-high 28 against Wisconsin-Green Bay, going 6-for-8 from 3-point range. Valparaiso made a season-high 13 shots from beyond the arc Saturday.
Little, whose previous career high was 16 points, added a game-high seven rebounds and three steals. He has reached double figures in scoring in a career-best four straight games.